Culture, Tradition, Heartbreak and Justice

Reviewed by Chiara Snow

Inuit Legend in Print and On Screen

Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner

By Paul Apak Angilirq
Published by Coach House Books

“A naked man running for his life across the ice, his hair flying…”

For those of you have yet to see the beautiful story of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner on the big screen, you now have a choice of seeing it in print.

The newly published book presents the entire screenplay of Atanarjuat in a dual-language edition (in both Inuktitut syllabics and English). The beautiful book includes: large full-colour photos with detailed captions throughout, interviews with the filmmakers of the exciting action thriller and detailed explorations of the legend of Atanarjuat and of the Inuit culture.

The extraordinary film premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, won six Genie awards including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and was titled a masterpiece by The New York Times.

Atanarjuat is Canada’s first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit.

Filmmakers Paul Apak Angilirq and Zacharias Kunuk were inspired by the traditional legend of Atanarjuat. Their movie presents this incredible story of love, murder, revenge and shamanism set in ancient Igloolik

Coming of Métis Age

Little Buffalo River
By Frances Beaulieu
Published by McGillan Books

This short novel tells a hard coming of age story in the gentlest of voices. Each chapter – a short story in itself – revolves around life seen through the eyes of a sweet young girl named Anna.

Growing up Métis in the Northwest Territories in the 1950s, Anna’s descriptions of the environment that surrounds her paints a cruel society:

The white kids wouldn’t play with Anna because she was a half-breed and she lived in the poor part of Yellowknife. With her grandmother. Well. Where were the parents, then?

The Indian kids where shy. Anna looked too white.

Each experience is so naturally described, with heart touching innocence. Anna and her half-sister Violette, live with Ama a surrogate grandmother.

Mommy Suzanne, Anna’s biological mother, is an alcoholic who struggles to keep her white husband married to her. She sees Anna sporadically; and each time they meet, the young girl learns more than she needs to about a sad chilling adult world.

Anna squinted her eyes and peered just as hard as she could.

“It is Mommy Suzanne! Wowee, just look at her!”

Mommy Suzanne was getting closer. Her face looked kind of funny. Her eyes were all read and weird and her mouth was hanging open all loose… Mommy Suzanne’s hair was coming undone from its bun. Her blouse was all untucked from her tight black ski-pants. She had no socks on. Her ankles looked white and scaly and her sneakers were really grimy and had no shoelaces so they flapped in the dust like bedroom slippers.

“She looks really drunk, eh?”

When poor Ama is stricken with fatal cancer, Anna, in her teenaged years, is moved from one white foster home to another. She finally falls into what seems like an inevitable fate – one of drugs and depression.

Little Buffalo River, written over 18 years by Frances Beaulieu, is her first. Beaulieu is Métis, born in the Dene Nation, Denendeh, and adopted as a baby by a woman from the Chipewayan family. She lived in Yellowknife until the age of 16. She currently lives in Toronto and writes for a daily newspaper.

A Story of Survival and Tradition

Sacred Hunt: A Portrait of the Relationship between Seals and Inuit
By David F. Pelly
Published by Greystone Books

For centuries, aboriginal people throughout the Arctic have depended on seals for their survival. This moving portrait of the traditional hunt and of the spiritual link between Inuit and Arctic seals not only provides an educational experience, but an escape from the modern world.

The book’s foreword, written by the commissioner of Nunavut and sprinkled with Inuit terms, the Honorable Peter Irniq shares his childhood anecdotes, which reveal how profound an impact the seal has had on this culture’s lifestyle.

When my father returned home with a seal, it was my mother’s responsibility to butcher the animal. As soon as the seal was pulled through the entrance of our iglu, my mother would take a small piece of freshwater ice and gently put it into the seal’s mouth and let the dead seal drink water.

She would then say… “This is so that all seals under the ice will not go thirsty!” How powerful and strong this simple message to the spirits was. And spirits listened!

Divided into three main areas (Respect for the Seal, Hunting the Seal and A Pact for Survival); each section is enhanced with beautiful photographs of Inuit sculpture, paintings and prints that showcase the importance of Arctic seals in Inuit culture. Pictures show the hunting of seals, the eating of the meat, and the making of clothing from the animals’ skins.

Most revealing is the description of the new economy and its affect on the Inuit people. While in the past the seal provided food, clothing, and fuel (from its blubber), technology has introduced the Inuit people to a world of snowmobiles and rifles, and a much lesser demand for seal products.

A powerful anti-sealing campaign that grew 30 years ago when Brigitte Bardot had her photograph taken with a baby seal pup off Newfoundland, helped the animal rights movement gain attention. This lead to a ban on seal imports from the European Community. With almost no market left for sealskins, hunting today has become more expensive and difficult, not to mention dangerous.

With the collapse of the sealskin market, social assistance payments to Canadian Inuit have risen dramatically, as have rates of suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse. The anti-sealing campaign has changed life in the North forever.

David F. Pelly is a writer and researcher who has lived and traveled in the Arctic for more than twenty years. He is the author of five previous books, including Thelon: A River Sanctuary. His work has been published in Canadian Geographic and Equinox, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

A Fight for Aboriginal Rights

One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law
By Thomas R. Berger
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

In what the author calls “the adventures of a lawyer”; One Man’s Justice is an account of a dozen legal cases – many of them championing aboriginal rights.

Thomas R. Berger’s 50-year law career began in 1957 when he was called to the British Columbia bar. After a brief stint in politics in the 1960s, Berger became a judge of the Supreme Court of B.C. in 1971 where he remained for twelve years. “But I always made my way back into law practice,” he writes.

He began arguing cases dealing with Aboriginal rights in his earliest cases. In 1971, he argued Calder v. British Columbia “asserting that Aboriginal rights had a distinct place in Canadian law.” In 1973, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that Aboriginal rights had a place in Canadian law. The Calder case led to treaty-making “for more than 25 years culminating in the Nisga’a treaty.”

Each and every case described in this book share a common theme: Berger’s passion and interest in representing those whose rights are disregarded. His characters, which include hookers and ageing judges – are colourful and rich.

He writes as much about his failures as he does about his victories. And with each legal decision, he finds a lesson that helps him with subsequent cases.

Thomas Berger, known for specializing in civil liberties, constitutional law and Native rights, is recognized internationally for his work in the areas of human rights and jurisdictional justice for the world’s northern peoples. His books include Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland and Village Journey.